The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, with the Paralympic Games following Aug. 25-Sept. 6, and while they may be months away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.
While most of the 800-plus 2020 U.S. Olympians and Paralympians must wait until next year to secure their berths in the Tokyo Games, the team qualifiers have largely completed their work.
Seven U.S. teams qualified for the Olympic Games in 2019, while five more qualified for the Paralympic Games. They join softball and women’s basketball, which earned their Olympic berths in 2018, along with the women’s sitting volleyball team that also clinched its Paralympic spot last year.
Although four U.S. teams fell short of Olympic qualification (field hockey and team handball, men’s and women’s), and the U.S. is not fielding a 5-a-side soccer team for the Paralympic Games, there are still opportunities for U.S. teams to qualify for Tokyo.
Baseball and men’s soccer are both looking to make their first Olympic appearances since 2008 — though for different reasons. Baseball was left out of the last two Games (as was softball), while men’s soccer failed to qualify.
Also still needing to qualify in 2020 is the U.S. women’s soccer team, though the question surrounding that team is less whether it will qualify and more whether it can become the first FIFA Women’s World Cup champion to win the proceeding year’s Olympic gold medal.
The other U.S. team still seeking qualification is men’s sitting volleyball.
As we head into the Olympic and Paralympic year, here’s a look at the U.S. teams that qualified in 2019.
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The U.S. men’s basketball team secured its Olympic berth in September, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. Most other memories from that event have already been pushed into history. The U.S. men, winners of the past three Olympic gold medals, are coming off their worst finish ever at the World Cup, having ended in seventh place. It’s not time to panic just yet. While several key players withdrew from consideration from the World Cup, leaving just two NBA All-Stars, many of the biggest names are expected to be back for the Olympic year in 2020. Among those who have expressed their desire to compete in Tokyo is two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, who would make his Olympic debut in Japan.
Not traditionally known as a rugby power, even in recent years, the U.S. suddenly has a pair of Olympic medal contenders going into the Tokyo Games. The U.S. men clinched their berth in May as part of a historic 2018-19 season. Coming off a sixth-place finish in the previous year’s World Rugby Sevens Series, Team USA opened the 2018-19 campaign with four straight silver medals before claiming gold in Las Vegas. Prior to that stretch, the U.S. has never medaled in back-to-back World Sevens Series tournaments ever. The Americans added two more bronze medals over the 10-event season to finish second overall. Carlin Isles, who was part of the U.S. team when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in 2016, led the series in tries.
The U.S. men's rugby sevens team poses for a photo after securing a berth at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on May 25, 2019 in London.
After needing to qualify for the 2016 Games in a second-chance regional tournament (as did the men), the Americans secured their 2020 Olympic berth with time to spare in the 2018-19 World Rugby Sevens Series season. Having never reached the podium more than once in a season, and never finishing higher than fourth overall, the Americans wrote a new script in 2018-19, medaling in five of the six tournaments — including one win — en route to a second-place finish. Things went so well that the team secured Olympic qualification just by stepping foot on the field in the season finale. The 2019-20 season has started off with more of the same, with Team USA opening with a gold medal and following it with a bronze. Olympian Alev Kelter continues to lead the U.S. in scoring.
Following the U.S. women one week earlier, the U.S. men swept their Olympic qualifying event in August to clinch their 10th straight berth into the Games. The result continued a stretch of overall strong form from the Americans. Coming off a bronze medal at the 2018 world championships, the U.S. found its stride in finishing second in the 2019 FIVB Men’s Volleyball Nations League. In October, the men finished third at the FIVB World Cup in Japan. Coming off a bronze medal in Rio, the U.S. men are likely to bring plenty of star power to Tokyo, with nine of the players in Olympic qualifying having been veterans of both the 2016 Olympic Games and 2018 world championships. Aaron Russell, Matt Anderson and Micah Christenson are among the names to watch.
The Americans took most of the drama out of Olympic qualifying, sweeping their three opponents in front of a home crowd in Louisiana. That result was of little surprise, as Team USA came into the event ranked No. 3 in the world and having won its second consecutive Volleyball Nations League title earlier in the summer. The quest now will be clinching that elusive gold medal in Tokyo. Although the U.S. women have traditionally been among the sport’s powers, they’ve never won an Olympic gold medal. They’re coming off a bronze medal in 2016, which followed consecutive silver medals. A silver medal in the FIVB World Cup in September sends Team USA into the Olympic year on a high note. Olympians Kim Hill, Jordan Larson and Kelsey Robinson are expected to contend for spots again in Tokyo.
Water Polo (Men)
A ninth-place finish at the world championships didn’t leave the U.S. men’s water polo with the most positive vibes, so the team turned around and wrote a new story. After finishing the world championships on July 25 in South Korea, the Americans went to Lima, Peru, and preceded to win the gold medal at the Pan American Games in early August. With that win, the squad also secured its berth to the Tokyo Games. Although the U.S. men are historically a power at the Olympics — only Hungary has won more medals since the sport’s Olympic debut in 1900 — Team USA has faced tougher competition in recent years. Since winning a silver medal in 1988, the Americans have reached the podium just once, finishing second in 2008. They were 10th in Rio.
Water Polo (Women)
One could be forgiven for missing that the U.S. women’s water polo team qualified for Tokyo. After all, the team holds every major championship in the sport, it’s been that way for years now, and the winning ways only continued in 2020. That doesn’t make the achievement any less notable, though. Team USA punched its ticket to Tokyo by winning the World League Super Final in June, which preceded the team’s record-setting third consecutive world title in July. The big year also included wins at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament and Pan American Games, and by winning the Canada Cup in early December the team extended its record-setting winning streak to 63. Maddie Musselman, the MVP of the World League, is among several Olympians still going strong for Team USA, which will seek a third consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.
The U.S. women's water polo team celebrate at the 2019 FINA World Championships on July 26, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea.
Tyler Merren led the way as the U.S. men’s goalball team earned its berth to the Tokyo Games. Needing to beat Canada in the semifinals at the Parapan American Games in Peru, Merren, a three-time Paralympian, scored twice in Team USA’s decisive 6-4 win to secure qualification. Although the U.S. fell to Brazil in the gold-medal game, it finished the tournament 5-1 and outscored opponents 62-28. The Americans are coming off a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
The U.S. men's goalball team poses for a photo at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 31, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The U.S. women’s goalball team punched its ticket to Tokyo by winning the silver medal at a qualifying event in July. Then in August, they reached the gold-medal game at the Parapan American Games. Although the squad fell 4-3 to Brazil in double overtime, the team left Peru with a 6-1 record while outscoring opponents 53-12. Amanda Dennis, a 2016 Paralympic bronze medalist, led the way with 14 goals. Lisa Czechowski and Asya Miller will be going for their sixth Paralympics in Tokyo.
Wheelchair Basketball (Men)
With eight players back from the team that won Paralympic gold in 2016, the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team rolled through the competition at the Parapan American Games in August. And with their dominant semifinal win over Argentina, they clinched their spot in Tokyo. Now the team turns its attention back to the Paralympic Games. In Rio, the team won its first Paralympic gold medal in 28 years (though the team won three bronze medals in between). The U.S. last claimed back-to-back gold medals in 1972 and 1976. One team the Americans will have to get past is Great Britain, which beat them in the title game at the 2018 world championships.
The U.S. men's basketball team poses for a photo at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 31, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Wheelchair Basketball (Women)
Canada ended the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team’s hopes of winning a fourth straight gold medal at the Parapan American Games, but not before the Americans secured their spot in Tokyo, where they’ll enter as defending Paralympic champions. Team USA qualified by merit of winning its semifinal at the Parapan Am Games with a roster featuring six members of the winning squad from Rio. The U.S. women have won three of the last four Paralympic gold medals, though they lost in the quarterfinals of the 2018 world championships and ended up finishing sixth there. That marked the first time in the tournament’s history that the Americans fell short of the medal round.
Chuck Aoki came through again for the U.S. wheelchair rugby team. The two-time Paralympian scored 18 tries as Team USA beat Canada 58-47 to claim not only the Parapan American Games gold medal but also a berth to Tokyo. Now Aoki and Co. will be looking for a Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo after winning a bronze in 2012 and silver in 2016. “I’m ramping up for the perfect ending with a gold in Tokyo,” he said. Team USA last won Paralympic gold in the sport in 2008. The squad’s prospects continue to look good after winning the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge in October in Tokyo.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.